Can Christian higher education be non-ideological?
Can Christian higher education divorce itself from raising issues of political implications?
In a word: Absolutely not.
Recently, I came across an interesting article from a former adjunct teacher at King’s College. King’s College, if you’ll remember, is the historically protestant school that caught headlines when it hired lapsed Catholic and conservative critic Dinesh D’Souza to be their next president.
In the article, Jonathan Fitzgerald laments the overtly conservative tone present in the school’s educational curricula. To him, the conservative sentiment troublingly overrides the Christian sentiment from which the school was chartered.
At the other end of the spectrum, however, are those [Christian colleges] that aspire to turn out a certain kind of student, with certain political leanings and a mission to remake the world according to a certain conception of Christianity. The King’s College is among the most flagrant among them.
It wasn’t just that the culture of the school appeared to favor right-wing politics; conservatism seemed to be ingrained into its very character. Take, for example, this excerpt from the college’s website in response to the question “What is Economics?”:
The Bible affirms private property, supports entrepreneurial activity, and calls us as Christians to be honest, hard-working, thrifty, just, and generous in exercising stewardship with our talents and resources. We believe that a market economy characterized by substantial individual freedom and a limited role for government best promotes these values and virtues.
But, the more I learned about King’s, the more obvious it became that as an institution it is less interested in imparting a well-rounded education to its students, and much more concerned with graduating a particular kind of politically conservative Christian, cast in the image of its prominent administrators.
Back in August, shortly after D’Souza’s selection as president, a current King’s student named Joshua Wright described his experience there in a comment at the blog I edit, Patrolmag.com. Under the former provost, he wrote, the college was “a laboratory for Marvin Olasky’s special concoction of philosophical traditionalism and political conservatism.” Wright was also disappointed by D’Souza’s hiring; he saw it as a theological compromise in favor of a political ideology. His comment continued, “I am at King’s because I was informed that we were a college that didn’t tell you what to think but how to think. Apparently, we’re supposed to think like Sean Hannity.”
I really appreciated the tone of Fitzgerald’s analysis. He did not come across as a partisan hack fueled towards undermining King’s College. He expressed reasonable concerns and did so charitably. Fitzgerald does, though, admit that there is a large swath of distance between his own ideology and that of King’s College. Readers should be aware that it may be too easy to criticize a particular institution when you don’t share its worldview.
I, on the other hand, am prone to defend and extol King’s College for probably the same reason Fitzgerald laments it.
- In an ever-weakening doctrinal fidelity amidst evangelicals, King’s College has retained stalwart doctrinal commitments. It is a theologically confessing school.
- Every student at King’s College majors in a program called “PPE” — Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. From there, each student is allowed a concentration in a different sub-category. Had a program like this been available to me during my undergrad, I would have been left salivating over its course offerings. Their understanding of a Christian worldview has an integrative bent do it.
- The college is unapologetically conservative in its political discourse and attitude towards engagement.
- King’s is designed to instill students with an informed worldview and in turn, place their students in highly influential cultural institutions. An “infiltration” mentality is apparently an ideal.
Personally speaking, as a brand new father, I jokingly (and seriously) tell my wife that our daughter has currently only four options from which to choose to attend college. Tragically, while two of the colleges are Christian by design, I have no immediate desire that my daughter attend only a Christian college. Evangelicalism is hollowing and shallow; and good Christian education has been replicated so few times that I’m convinced that such an endeavor is not a primary concern of mine. I don’t mean to disrespect Christian colleges, but I also don’t esteem them as arbiters or guarantors of dependable Christian orthodoxy.
Here’s the rub: Schools that have remained politically conservative (and there are few) have remained determinatively more politically conservative than Christian schools who have tried to remain evangelical. The arc of institutional drift is toward liberalism; and sadly, this is remarkably true of most Christian colleges. Christian colleges provide an inoculating effect of instilling just enough Christian culture to pacify parents while often compromising doctrinal fidelity in the name of academic freedom.
Is it wrong for King’s College to remain both outspokenly Christian and conservative? Absolutely not. Insofar as the administration understands where Christianity and conservatism complement each other; and, where there’s no capitulating of Christianity to extremist conservative positions, I’m fine with it. As far as Christian education is concerned, it’s more important to be a Christian school with conservative values than a conservative school with mildly Christian values.
Nowhere through the King’s website have I seen a sanctimonious attempt to baptize conservative orthodoxy. Instead, what is apparent is that King’s College expresses its Christianity in a uniquely conservative flavor. There’s a quality distinction to be had here.
I doubt you’d find anybody in their administration argue that free-market capitalism saves. I would suggest, that you’d find committed Christians who recognize that certain economic and political principles are more resonant and acclimatizing with conservative intrepretations of Scripture. I mean, really, why is it that Jim Wallis is a political liberal and arrives at such by a theologically liberal reading of Scripture?
We can all hang our heads in despair, but we can also recognize that detractors to the Religious Left are guilty of empowering a politicial liberalism as the Religious Right is guilty of empowering a political conservatism. Such is life; a life that is not lived in an ideological vacuum. And, to the great credit of King’s College, I’ve never seen anything of their literature which suggests that it sees itself as the masthead of Religious Right conservatism.
It’s a Christian school. And a conservative school. And that’s okay.
Tragically, most Christian colleges are mildly Christian and trending towards liberalism. This, dear readers, is a shame.
With King’s College, I might just expand the list of available college options to a fifth.
[For purposes of clarification, my intent behind this post was to express the necessary ideological bent of education. Though I do support King’s College in its mission as it stands, my intent was not to write an apologia for the college]
Good article on the whole, but can’t let this line go: “Is it wrong for King’s College to remain both outspokenly Christian and conservative? Absolutely not. Insofar as the administration understands where Christianity and conservatism complement each other; and, where there’s no capitulating of Christianity to extremist conservative positions, I’m fine with it.”
The college you’re defending is led by Dinesh D’Souza. He of “The Roots of Obama’s Rage” fame. He might be the worst of the extremist conservative Christians running right now because, unlike Palin, Bachmann and their ilk, he presents himself as an intellectual, which attaches a veneer of respectability to his uninformed ravings. (The Roots of Obama’s Rage article in Forbes is the most embarrassing piece I’ve read in the past year.) So while I agree w/ the overall argument you’re making, I don’t see how you can possibly then use that argument to defend King’s. If it was Olasky in that position of leadership rather than D’Souza, I could see it. But they lost all their credibility when they brought him on board.
As usual, great input.
After some thought, I think I agree with you for the most part. I’m still not comfortable calling D’Souza an “extremist” as you might, but you’re on the right path. D’Souza still maintains some good credibility given his past and affiliations with the Reagan administration. When I speak of “extremist” I have more in mind the Ann Coulters of the world along with the John Birch Society.
You may hate me for this, but I’ve read D’souza “Roots” book and don’t think it as bad as some people make it out to be. I think it too easily became an easy scapegoat for many individuals. I think Andrew Ferguson’s review from The Weekly Standard, which got a lot press, was dead-wrong. In all, I think the book was too quickly dismissed.
Like I said, don’t hate me :)
I like D’Souza and am comfortably with his placement at King’s, but I still think it an odd-choice. He does not command the theological gravitas that is affiliated with King’s.
Thank you for this post. You are correct that there are few college who are remaining doctrinally evangelical and yet also have some respect for the past (i.e. are trying to “conserve” something in the political and economic sphere).
First, a disclaimer: Starting this fall I will be a full-time assistant professor of philosophy at The King’s College. So, I am certainly not a neutral observer when it comes to the school. With that out of the way, though, I have just a few brief thoughts that may be helpful for you:
First, King’s has more than one major. The PPE major is their most popular, but they do have majors in Business Management and Media, Culture, and the Arts. Like the PPE major, the major in Media, Culture, and the Arts is very interdisciplinary. This recognition of the interrelatedness of various disciplines is part of the King’s approach to education. Students get a broad education that will give them the historical grounding, critical thinking skills, and flexibility to succeed in the long run. At any rate, that is the goal.
Second, King’s will make a lot of people mad because they hold to the simple principles of political and economic freedom. They do hold them not because they have listened to too much Sean Hannity, but because they recognize their value. They recognize the long historical grounding, the congruence with human nature, and the practical benefits of these principles. And, they are prepared to argue for them. If a student takes a class in Western Civ with Joseph Loconte do you think he is going to try to brainwash them with slogans from Hannity? Or, do you think he is going to lead them through a sensitive, insightful, enjoyable, and challenging tour through the classics of the West? At root, critics like Jonathan Fitzgerald seem to want colleges to simply give students a menu of ideas and then leave students to choose what to believe based on their preferences. And, really, if that is what you want out of education then you have a lot of options. Almost every college, both secular and Christian, fits that bill quite nicely. If you want something different, where you can learn about the past without reflexively disowning it, where you can read the classics as actually having something to say to you, where you can learn logic without learning that it undermines the authority of the Bible, where the great benefits of political and economic freedom can be recognized instead of disparaged, then you can list your options with one hand.
Every school has its dangers and temptations; King’s is no exception. But the charge that students are being indoctrinated by miniature Sean Hannitys falls very, very flat.
Thanks again for the post,
Thanks for your great response. It’s nice to attract some attention from actual (and eventual) profs at King’s College.
I echo your sentiments entirely. I understand to make education a “buffet of ideas” where diversity is welcome, but even this can be done in a confessional atmosphere where consensus can be met. Academic freedom without academic commitment is blind naivety.
I especially appreciated your comments about economic and political liberty and their distinction from being terms used solely by Sean Hannity.
Thanks for posting.
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what four colleges would you recommend for your daughter?
@Andrew: First, Jake is too modest to bring attention to his own critique of Dinesh D’Souza’s anti-colonialist interpretation of Barack Obama, so I’ll direct your attention to his excellent blog post, “National boundaries mean nothing in the Kingdom of God – An Answer for Dinesh D’Souza.”
Second, like Sam (I wish people would leave comments with their last name), I’m curious to know which four colleges you would recommend for your daughter. I hope my alma mater, Wheaton College, is counted among them.
Third, any postmodernist would laugh at the prospect of a non-ideological education. All education is carried out from an ideological orientation, usually more than one. As a consequence, I’m not all that interested in whether a Christian college should be conservative or liberal in its ideology, even if I lean in the conservative direction. What matters, regardless of the ideology, is whether a Christian college teaches its academic disciplines in a “fair and balanced” way, a phrase that I hesitate to use because it has become popularized by FOX News, which, by any stretch of the imagination, is not fair and balanced.
What might such an education look like? A political science student, for example, would be required to take two courses from different professors called “Why Marx Is Right” and “Why Marx Is Wrong.” Of course the best kind of professor should be able to achieve this “fair and balanced” approach in a single course. My concern is that a Christian college with conservative values will exclusively teach the “Why Marx Is Wrong” angle while the Christian college with liberal values will exclusively teach the “Why Marx Is Right” angle. The problem is not with ideology per se but how ideology exercises a hermeneutics of suspicion toward its competitors or alternatives. Christian colleges ought to be places where there is a hermeneutics of charity, not where Marx is named an implacable enemy of the faith tout court, and then dismissed.
When we read Communist Manifesto in my history of philosophy course at Wheaton, I appreciated how the professor made understanding the primary goal (Do I understand the text?) and criticism the secondary goal (What is my opinion about the text?). Whether it’s a treatment of Marxism or postmodernism, I’ve observed a temptation among Christian educators to give short shrift to the hard task of understanding because they would rather indulge the cheap thrills of faith-based polemics. That tactic is not only intellectually irresponsible, but spiritually demeaning. At bottom, my point concerns the vital importance of pedagogy: how we teach matters as much – or more – than what we teach.
“The problem is not with ideology per se but how ideology exercises a hermeneutics of suspicion toward its competitors or alternatives. Christian colleges ought to be places where there is a hermeneutics of charity, not where Marx is named an implacable enemy of the faith tout court, and then dismissed.”
Right. That happens right after understanding him. : )
However cheekily, Mr. Anderson is indulging the cheap thrill of faith-based polemics by dubbing Marx an implacable enemy of the faith. If Marx is properly understood, no such appellation can be applied to him. ;-) More charity, Mr. Anderson. More charity.
Yes…..and Mr. Benson is indulging the cheap thrill of dismissing those who disagree with him by assuming that their bad interpretation is a result of their lack of “charity,” rather than presuming (charitably, we might say) that those who disagree about the interpretation of Marx have actually read him charitably. : )
Now, Mr. Anderson and Mr. Benson, you two settle down. I won’t allow grandstanding in my comments.
A sincere question for Mr. Benson:
Why should Christian education prioritize the student’s understanding of an author rather than the student’s discernment of the orthodoxy of an author? The Pauline epistles are replete with Paul’s concern for the latter, but I cannot think of a single NT example of the former. Can you?
In answer to your question, “Why should Christian education prioritize the student’s understanding of an author rather than the student’s discernment of the orthodoxy of an author? ” I would say because how is one to discern the orthodoxy of an author until they have properly understood him? I suppose the professor could say he has already understood the author and pronounce him unorthodox bu then what is he really teaching his class to do?
I don’t think the NT gives us a great example of this because to expect the NT to show this kind of analysis is to expect the NT to be a complete exposition of the apostles’ thought process and reading. Instead, what we have in the NT are snapshots of apostolic teaching, rebuke, encouragement, etc. We don’t have the whole process revealed to us. I’m sure Paul gave a careful consideration of the issues of faith and grace versus law before writing the Galatians, but the letter to the Galatians doesn’t contain all of his process of analyses…just the conclusions he want them to take away.
I’d also postualte that there might be important distinctions between education and discipleship. TO be taught how (the process of) to think and learn might be different than a pastor encouraging his flock into orthopraxy. Not that the two are opposed, but they might be different processes in different contexts…both leading to truth.
A question about the quote from King’s College’s website within the quoted portion of Fitzgerald’s post in your post: Where in the Bible is private property affirmed and entrepreneurial activity supported?
That assertion seems key to the linkage between conservative ideology and Christian education that King’s College makes, aside from the congruence between conservative social values and other Scriptural prescriptions. Though people like Wallis make a case for a liberal political ideology that they see as more in line with Scripture.
But affirmation of private property? Of entrepreneurial activity? Please edify me.
If a man will not work, he shall not eat…that will give you the spirit of an entrepeneur quickly.
The Creation Mandate in Genesis 1 is also a call to industry.
The laws of Israel believed so strongly in private property and its importance that every family had there property returned to them every 49th year in the year of jubilee.
As for the affirmation of private property, one example often pointed to is Abraham’s purchase of a gravesite for his wife’s body. (See pp. 72-73 of Jay Richards’ excellent Money, Greed, and God)
I’m the “current King’s student” from Jonathan’s article, and I just wanted to take the time and offer a few thoughts from inside.
I’d also like to say to Professor Talcott that I’m extremely excited about his coming to King’s, probably more so than anyone else at the college. I’m interested in the possibility of pursuing a career in academic philosophy, so it’s nice to finally have a full time philosophy professor.
That being said, I’d like to note that – shocking as it might seem, with regards to my comments – I am personally fairly conservative politically. However, I do believe there is a certain ideological problem within King’s. King’s is, first and foremost, a Christian college. Just go to the website and you’ll see that they sell it by saying King’s won’t tell you “what to think but how to think.” That is, they offer a Christian framework for discussing politics, philosophy, economics, etc.
However, in actuality, it is not so much a thoughtful Christian framework they promote, but a conservative Christian one. It is, of course, not the case that professors shove Sean Hannity quotes down students’ throats (just for the record, my line about Sean Hannity was just a quip). Yet, there is not a professor at King’s – at least, not that I’ve heard of or had – that is liberal or even moderate. They are all conservative or borderline libertarians.
But of course, as Professor Talcott mentions, it is naive to think that a professor can provide an impartial position from the podium. In fact, many of the professors at King’s allow for discussion in which students can openly disagree with them. Yet, I think one would be hard-pressed to find someone that can support the view that Christianity requires all of its adherents to be conservatives. In fact, many Christians (even evangelicals) are political liberals. As a Christian school, particularly one that tells its students that it is not going to “tell them what to think,” one can’t help but imagine that by hiring only politically conservative professors, they are, in a way, telling them what to think by neglecting to hire someone that might be able to offer an alternative perspective. Note that I’m not asking for a complete regime change, but it would be nice to have at least a hint of intellectual diversity in terms of politics.
And remember, I’m saying this as a conservative. As I was quoted as saying in the article, I came to King’s because they said that they were interested not in preparing Christian conservative drones, but thoughtful believers to go into the world. They said that they would often invite everyone from Marxists to libertarians to give lectures. But of course, this is not the case. Since I’ve been here, I’ve had one professor arrange a Marxist to lecture for his students. But of course, former Provost Olasky has arranged for just about anyone who has worked for the Heritage Foundation or served as a Republican congressman to talk during our Distinguished Visitor Series. I might note that the number of religious or theological speakers are certainly outnumbered by those with conservative credentials.
I think President D’Souza is planning on taking the college in a different and better direction than Provost Olasky (although I am worried that because of D’Souza’s last book, our reputation could suffer). In what I’ve heard from D’Souza’s addresses to the student body, he realizes that we are, as I said, first-and-foremost a Christian college. He intends to create an atmosphere in which we are prepared as Christians to enter the public sphere and be able to intelligently defend our faith. In addition, it sounds as if he wishes to expose us to a number of viewpoints. For example, we recently had Stanley Fish as a Distinguished Visitor. From what I’ve heard, it was D’Souza who arranged this, and he has expressed (perhaps naively) that he wants to invite Tony Blair and Alvin Plantinga as guests. This sort of outreach never would have occurred under Olasky’s reign, and it gives me hope that King’s is finally going to strive to be a top notch Christian college.
Sorry for the exceedingly long comment, and I’m sure some people won’t agree with me. But I just wanted to give my input as a King’s student, and I should note that there are a number of other King’s students who do feel as I do: that King’s is sacrificing (or at least sidelining) its Christian convictions for its conservative ones.
Thanks for having this discussion,
Thanks for participating in the discussion. Your comment and clarifications were very helpful.
Thanks. The work…eat verse makes some sense.
It has been pointed out to me that descriptions in the Bible of slaveholding and prescriptions for the treatment of slaves does not constitute affirmation of that practice by the Bible.
But it’s inconsistent to claim that the Bible affirms some practice or principle (like private property or entrepreneurship) when it is only describing its use or application without conceding that the Bible also affirms some bad stuff, like slavery.
This is just a general observation, meant for no one specifically but everyone generally.
Are the foundations of liberalism inherently non-Christian? It’s odd to me that the notion of liberal=secular has become such a given in Christian circles. You can pick at a few liberal secondary platforms that have moral implications. But i don’t think there is anything non-Christian about a progressive tax code, equal opportunity employment, government regulations, etc. Sure, you can disagree with the economic principles behind them, but are they actually unChristian / not fit for a Christian school?
@Mr. Walker: Thanks for being a referee in the skirmish between Mr. Anderson and me, although it doesn’t exonerate you from answering this question: which four colleges would your recommend for your daughter?
@Mr. Anderson: You’re an indefatigable sparring partner. :-) I still maintain that a proper understanding of Marx will not result in a criticism of him as an implacable enemy of the faith tout court because tout court means “with no addition or qualification,” and there are always additions or qualifications when it comes to the complexity of a man and his ideas. I would like to think that a patient and rigorous understanding of Marx will result in a critique, where parts of his ideas are appropriable to the Christian faith while other parts are inappropriable. It’s always a mixed bag, never 100% friend or 100% foe.
@Mr. Miller: Casey anticipated my answer to your question: “How is one to discern the orthodoxy of an author until [he has] properly understood him?” In my formulation, understand always precedes criticism. In C. S. Lewis’ formulation, reception always precedes use. Some Christian educators are nervous about the reception of certain thought (e.g., Marxism or postmodernism) because they fear that reception will weaken, compromise, or destroy the faith. Consequently, their reception to the author or work is half-hearted. They refuse to get themselves out of the way, and therefore they cannot understand what they study. As to your other point, I don’t think it’s the apostle Paul’s purpose to develop an explicit philosophy of Christian education. The Bible can shape the form and content of education, but its central purpose, according to a stream of Reformed thinkers (John Calvin, Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, G. C. Berkouwer), is to tell the story of salvation (or to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ). I would also like to accentuate Casey’s important distinction between education and discipleship.
To day, here’s the selection that my daughter, Caroline, may choose from. Again, the list is in continual flux. Their selection is in no particular order or ranking.
2) Union University
3) Hillsdale College
4) Grove City
5) For the sake of compliment, I’ll go ahead and add The King’s College.
I would be inclined to say that University of Chicago, if only for their poli sci department.
Of course, this list is subject to revision and I’ll always keep a hopeful eye that more colleges will embrace my preferred ideological bent :)
@Mr. Walker: In no particular order, here are my top five picks for a conservative (Protestant) Christian who wants to pursue a superlative education at a small, private liberal arts college:
1. Wheaton College (particularly the Philosophy and English departments)
2. St. John’s College
3. Rhodes College (see Life: Then & Now and Search for Values in Light of Western History & Religion)
4. St. Olaf College (see the Great Conversation program)
5. Calvin College (particularly the Philosophy department)
See the First Things survey of America’s colleges and universities, particularly the “25 top schools in America” and the “best seriously Protestant schools” at the bottom of the web page.
For point of clarification, this list reflects Mr. Walker’s (in this case) misguided beliefs, not the beliefs of this here blog.
That is all. : )
What misguided beliefs are we referring to, Mr. Anderson?
Just the belief that Wheaton could be ranked higher than Torrey at, well, anything except lame mascots. : )
Don’t sweat it. I am morally obligated to give Wheaton a hard time in any discussion in which Mr. Benson participates. : )
@Mr. Walker: Don’t be hasty in adding Biola University to your list of acceptable colleges, although I concede that Torrey Honors Institute should be evaluated separately. Just remember that in their first-ever survey of colleges and universities, First Things ranked Wheaton College number one while Biola didn’t even make it into the “top 25 schools in America” or “schools on the rise, filled with excitement.” Booyah! Under “best seriously Protestant schools,” Wheaton was, once again, ranked number one. Torrey was mentioned as an “interesting alternative.”
Being “morally obligated to give [Biola] a hard time in any discussion in which [Mr. Anderson] participates,” here are the contrasting profiles for Wheaton and Biola:
Wheaton College is an evangelical liberal-arts college in the suburbs of Chicago–and one of the most religious nondenominational Protestant institutions in America. The majority of Wheaton students are evangelicals drawn there by its Christian identity and “top-notch academics.” This makes sense, as everyone on campus, including faculty, must sign a statement of faith that professes “The Lord Jesus Christ died for our sins.”
Politically and religiously, Wheaton’s students are fairly conservative, although the faculty is moderately liberal, making for an interesting classroom dynamic. One student writes that Wheaton “actually made my faith more nuanced and discerning–I think I would have become much more reactionary, fundamentalist, or anti-intellectual if I had gone to a college not receptive toward my faith.”
Wheaton students study heavily, and the campus is dry and drug free. Students say some students–part of a subculture known as the “Wheaton underground”–do drink and engage in sexual activities but do so “way, way off campus” to avoid getting caught or reported, as everyone is bound to adhere to school policies that threaten offenders with expulsion even if their transgressions take place off campus.
Wheaton offers great academics and a hospitable environment for the seriously religious. If a Wheaton education stirs your heart for religious conversion, however, it had better be to Protestantism. Joshua Hochschild, an assistant professor of philosophy, was dismissed in 2005 after his conversion to Catholicism.
Biola is an acronym of the school’s original name, the Bible Institute of Los Angeles. It was founded in the early twentieth century by Lyman Stewart, a Christian businessman who also funded The Fundamentals, a series of tracts from which Fundamentalism gets its name.
In its official literature, Biola makes no gestures toward the hearth gods of secular academia–diversity and inclusion–describing itself instead as “a community where all faculty, staff and students are professing Christians.” Faculty are required to affirm the main doctrines of premillennial evangelical theology. As for faith, as one student reports, “It’s everywhere you go on campus!”
At Biola the debates that divide the world of conservative Protestant Christianity into Calvinist and Arminian camps retain their passion. “Being Pentecostal,” observes a student, “is actually seen as an anomaly and not as accepted as one would hope.” The university isn’t afraid to impose worship and morality as well as to require courses. Students must attend chapel thirty times a semester and perform community service. School rules prohibit drinking and dancing, and students have to take several biblical courses. A serious Great Books program, the Torrey Honors Institute, provides an excellent educational option. Otherwise, the school is academically uneven–although a good place if you want to swim in the main currents of American evangelicalism.
@Mr. Benson (my, how formal we’ve become!),
Yes, yes. But to think through this out loud a bit, what if an author is 90% foe and 10% friend–and we could find that 10% elsewhere? I mean, simply saying that there’s *some* good in an author isn’t a very bold claim, is it? Nor does it necessarily justify the sort of appropriation attempt that you’ve advocated in the past.
I’m all for plundering the spoils of Egypt. But what if the spoils are so few that it’s not worth the time and effort (Note: this is a hypothetical that I’m not saying is true of Marx).
@Mr. Anderson: The formal address is a return to the decorum of my seminar room at St. John’s College. How can a student know whether “an author is 90% foe and 10% friend” until he has pursued the hard task of understanding or, as C. S. Lewis would put it, the risky act of reception? Even scholars, who devote their careers to understanding and reception, are divided about whether an author is friend or foe.
For example, consider Craig Carter (professor of theology and ethics at Tyndale University College & Seminary) and Merold Westphal (professor of philosophy at Fordham University). They are both devout Christian scholars who, presumably because of differences in their academic training, ecclesial traditions, and political ideologies, diverge significantly on Christian uses of Marx and his ideas. In a Mere Orthodoxy interview, Carter emphatically said: “I fail to see anything Christians can learn from Marx and I consider his ideas to be the most dangerous alternative to Christianity in the Western world.” By contrast, Westphal has written: ““Marx’s challenge to the churches is a hermeneutical challenge. It dares us to recognize in some of our most widespread rules of reading the ground of the ideological function and idolatrous substance of our faith. And it defies us to develop a hermeneutics of justice and compassion, one that seeks to hear rather than to hide what the Bible says about the widows and the orphans, the women and children in single-parent families.” In conclusion, our situatedness will influence how we estimate the spoils of Egypt. Some will say the plunder was worth the time and effort while others will not.
No one said that we shouldn’t pursue understanding. To quote my first comment, “Right. That happens right after understanding him. : )”
As for the rest, no further comment. Thanks for the exchange.
They can’t, but that is what the teacher is there for. After undertaking the risky act of reception, some teachers will find some texts and authors of little value. At that point, why should they–as a rule–require their students to undertake that similar reception? Instead, if they are nervous that some of their students would get messed up by a “fair and balanced” study of a certain corpus, maybe they should just teach the Cliff’s Notes. After all, isn’t it better to go through life with a crippled understanding of Rousseau, than to go to Hell while understanding Rousseau? (Mark 9:42-49)
@Mr. Miller: Even teachers, who have presumably undergone the hard task of understanding, don’t agree about the Christian uses of an author, as I mentioned to Mr. Anderson regarding how Craig Carter and Merold Westphal evaluate Marx. I’m suspicious of any teacher who says, “I fail to see anything Christians can learn from Marx and I consider his ideas to be the most dangerous alternative to Christianity in the Western world.” When we read Marx’s Communist Manifesto at Wheaton College, the philosophy professor did not “just teach the Cliff’s Notes” because he was nervous that his students might become political radicals or atheists. Instead, he encouraged the habits of mind that helped us to understand and, then, criticize the text. When we read German Ideology at St. John’s College, the tutor got himself out of the way, as Lewis instructs, in order to let Marx do the teaching in the classroom. We all shared the common text, and the challenge was to read it closely – receiving before using. Although I assume you were being cheeky, no one is going to hell for understanding Rousseau or Marx. If Westphal is right about Marx, then an understanding of his writing poses a hermeneutic challenge to our churches: “It dares us to recognize in some of our most widespread rules of reading the ground of the ideological function and idolatrous substance of our faith. And it defies us to develop a hermeneutics of justice and compassion, one that seeks to hear rather than to hide what the Bible says about the widows and the orphans, the women and children in single-parent families.”
Let me be clear that developing the habits of the mind is a admirable goal of education. I attended a small liberal arts college in order to do just that.
And therefore, if Westphal is right about Marx then I wholeheartedly agree that Christians should spend a bunch of time studying him and interacting with his critiques.
But what if Carter is right about Marx? Should Carter nevertheless “get out of the way” and “let Marx do the teaching in the classroom”?
I don’t see why he should.
My educational philosophy starts from the premise that “The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher.” Carter, presumably, would rather his students become like him rather than like Marx. Why should he get out of the way and let Marx teach?
@Mr. Miller: Herein lies the rub: how can one determine whether Carter or Westphal is right about Marx? Furthermore, “right” doesn’t seem to be the right word, as if reading Marx is like a mathematical computation with a right or wrong answer. Aren’t we really looking for an acceptable range of interpretations on Marx, some more critical and others more appreciative? My gripe is with a professor who says “I fail to see anything Christians can learn from Marx” when that’s patently false. There’s always something to learn.
At St. John’s College, the tutor is a “first among equals,” a model learner who exhibits the habits of mind that students are to adopt for themselves. She doesn’t function as the “smartest person in the room,” answering every question with the imprimatur of the expert; although, it’s safe to assume her multiple encounters with the author make her a closer reader than the students. The real teacher in the classroom is the author. If a student proffers views on Marx that are not faithful to the text being read, the tutor gently corrects the student, asks probing follow-up questions, and returns him to the text. There is a time and place for criticism, but it should come only after the hard work of understanding. Students are notorious for thinking they’ve understood a text long before they have an adequate grasp of it. From a Christian point of view, the classroom becomes a site for developing the virtue of patience – the capacity to tolerate all the complexities of a text and pluralities of interpretation – and the skill of discernment – the ability to judge well without judging absolutely.
I’ve never claimed inerrancy or infallibility towards myself, so from time to time, important institutions are overlooked. That said, I would like to publicly add Biola and the Torrey Honors Institute to my list of acceptable colleges.
“@Mr. Walker: Don’t be hasty in adding Biola University to your list of acceptable colleges, although I concede that Torrey Honors Institute should be evaluated separately. Just remember that in their first-ever survey of colleges and universities, First Things ranked Wheaton College number one while Biola didn’t even make it into the “top 25 schools in America” or “schools on the rise, filled with excitement.” Booyah! Under “best seriously Protestant schools,” Wheaton was, once again, ranked number one. Torrey was mentioned as an “interesting alternative.””
The college rankings were the most embarrassing, regrettable moment in FT’s otherwise estimable history. Seriously. Utterly laughable, from top to bottom. But especially at the top.
The college rankings were the most embarrassing, regrettable moment in FT’s otherwise estimable history. Seriously. Utterly laughable, from top to bottom. But especially at the top.
Words spoken by a sore loser. ;-)
Actually, no. Words spoken by someone who was disappointed that FT actually DID a college rankings, and who thought their method was so bad that it actually undermined their credibility as an intellectual leader.
Matt and Christopher – You two amuse me a great deal and make me happy to be evangelical. That is all.
@Jake: I’m glad you’re amused by the squabbling of two contrarians because I think Matt and I scared off the other readers, including our referee (Mr. Walker). If we’re at all representative of Biola and Wheaton – as institutions and heuristics – then I predict the unpredictable in future enrollment. You’ll have to explain why we “make [you] happy to be evangelical.”
Meador, my mission in life is accomplished. Thank you.
@Mr. Anderson: “My mission in life is accomplished.” And what mission is that? To be forever at loggerheads with me? Haha. Or, to make others happy with the diversity and division in Evangelicalism? I’m sure our skirmish has driven a silent majority into Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism. [Laughter]
@Benson, you give us far too much credit.
…shuffles back to his cubicle with a bemused grin
Though this thread has mostly run its course, I have a few more thoughts:
Mr. Walker argued that all education inherently involves some viewpoint — specifically some “political implications.” Mr. Benson agreed that all education was done from some perspective (this is part of the “postmodern” reality), but was concerned that some Christian colleges would not be “fair and balanced” in how they taught some material. Mr. Miller pointed out that the pursuit of this “fair and balanced” presentation often comes at the cost of harming the souls of students by not training them to discern truth from error. There is an obvious tension here which is not easy to resolve.
It seems like we all would like some degree of free exploration within confessional confines. So, several problems confront us: 1) What exactly is “free exploration” (and how do we help promote it?); 2) What confessional boundaries should we have in place? 3) How do we handle teaching material that falls outside of our confessional boundaries?
However we answer these questions, a Christian college must always keep the spiritual condition of its students at the forefront of its concerns right alongside its pursuit of truth. It should have some some awareness of the fact that many things that have been taught in the history of the west are dangerous and harmful. It should be able to understand and communicate both those ideas and how they are harmful. It should be able to do this in a way which isn’t insulting or demeaning to the students and which encourages them to “taste and see” whether what they are saying is true. But, no Christian school should be asked to present dangerous material to students without at the same time giving the students some grid to understand how and why the thing is dangerous. To do that would be to seriously underestimate the consequences of ideas. “Or can a man walk on hot coals And his feet not be scorched?”
At the same time I want my students to understand Marx himself and what he actually said. I want them to not have a cliff notes understanding, but a deep and genuine one. That is my goal for every author I teach. But it would be a failure to teach Marx without pointing out the deep and dangerous flaws in his writings. A good teacher should do both. This does not mean Marx was mistaken about everything. I think there are points where he sounds an awful lot like a mid-20th century conservative, actually. For example, he is terribly concerned about how industrialization is dehumanizing people and making them simply cogs in industrial machines. That same concern is a major one of conservatives like Christopher Dawson and JRR Tolkien. Strange bedfellows, those, but there they are.
So, two tendencies to guard against: 1) To teach seriously flawed authors (such as Marx) in a truncated, superficial way which fails to allow the student to seriously grapple with their ideas. 2) To teach seriously flawed authors (such as Marx) without warning students of the serious flaws and inculcating them with the knowledge and affections to guard against them. Mr. Benson is focusing his concern on Christian schools doing (1) and Mr. Walker and Mr. Miller are focusing their concern on schools doing (2). I’m worried about both. I think most Christian schools are failing on both accounts — they lack both the intellectual rigor and the spiritual fidelity which should characterize the church.
Of course, (1) and (2) are pretty abstract, so I am guessing that most of us agree on (1) and (2), but disagree on how they apply. So, I would argue that Wheaton is seriously failing on (2). Some others apparently think Wheaton’s spiritual condition and intellectual discernment is relatively good. That is where the argument would need to go next. On the other hand, perhaps Mr. Benson thinks that proper higher education should have a relatively thin Biblical commitment. In that case, we would have a disagreement over (2) since he would want Christian schools to try to have less of an influence on their students than I would. In the end, I’m not satisfied with my students simply having a top-notch understanding of Marx (like they might get from St. John’s) — I want them to know reality itself in such an intimate way that they are also capable of seeing how Marx is mistaken.
Two further issues:
1) Mr. Miller has brought up one of the clearest and most relevant Biblical texts on this subject: Luke 6:40 “A pupil is not above his teacher; but everyone, after he has been fully trained, will be like his teacher.” If that verse is not central in your philosophy of education that should give you pause.
2) Given the things that people in this thread have seemed to value in an education, I am surprised that New St. Andrews out in Moscow, ID has not come up. They have more of a classical & Great Books orientation than even schools like Hillsdale and Grove City, and they of course decimate Wheaton (whose core is so weak I am surprised folks here praise it as comparable to places like Hillsdale or St. John’s). I mean, you can get out of Wheaton or Hillsdale without any Latin, logic, or calculus — the same isn’t true of New St. Andrews. And, NSA does the job at 1/4 the tuition price of St. John’s, 1/3 of Wheaton and 1/2 of Hillsdale. I would rather my kids dodge paedocommunionists at NSA than dodge liberal theology profs at Wheaton.
Disclaimer 1: Mr. Miller and I were roommates in college.
Disclaimer 2: I have connections with some folks at NSA.
@Mr. Talcott: I appreciate your “fair and balanced” summary of the comment thread, and share both of your concerns (1) “to teach seriously flawed authors (such as Marx) in a truncated, superficial way which fails to allow the student to seriously grapple with their ideas” and (2) “to teach seriously flawed authors (such as Marx) without warning students of the serious flaws and inculcating them with the knowledge and affections to guard against them.” We agree that “most Christian schools are failing on both accounts — they lack both the intellectual rigor and the spiritual fidelity which should characterize the church”
However, we disagree about which schools are failing. As a proud graduate of Wheaton College, I take offense at your facile accusation against the school and would like to hear solid evidence for why it fails on (2). Developing a Christian worldview is the top priority at Wheaton, all in service for “Christ and his Kingdom” (as the motto says). Duane Litfin and his successor Philip Graham Ryken are lauded for their robust biblical commitments and leadership. Ligon Duncan, senior minister of the First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, Mississippi, says this about Ryken: “The whole Wheaton family seems to know what a special man their new president is. They certainly seem to know that he genuinely loves them and cherishes the institution. Wheaton is led by a loving shepherd, with a rock solid commitment to historic Christian orthodoxy, a capacious intellect, a voracious appetite for knowledge, a prodigious literary output, a knack for acute cultural observation (as well as timely, bold and gracious engagement), an almost genetic understanding of the mission of liberal arts education, a commitment to what he (aptly) calls the reintegration of faith and learning, and a vision for deploying Wheaton’s resources ‘for Christ and his kingdom’ globally.” Watch Ryken’s inaugural address, “A World Servant in Christian Liberal Arts Education.”
And finally, your broadside about “liberal theology profs at Wheaton” is laughably absurd. The Biblical & Theological Studies department is home to some of the most respected traditional evangelical scholars, such as Gary Burge (New Testament), Andrew Hill (Old Testament), Timothy Larsen (Christian Thought), Douglas Moo (New Testament), John Walton (Old Testament), Daniel Treier (Theology), and Kevin Vanhoozer (Theology). If you want examples of bona fide liberal theology profs, look to Chicago, Harvard, Yale, and Duke – not Wheaton.
Question for Mr. Benson:
Would you apply the same arguments of receptivity, understanding, and appropriation to Intelligent Design?
To Josh Wright,
I forgot to mention: please email me at datalcott AT gmail.com. There are probably a number of things I can do to help you get planning for grad school even before I arrive. Hopefully you come back and see this.
To Mr. Benson,
I am glad that Wheaton has hired Phil Ryken; he will do a good job of leading the school. I understand the difference between the faculty at Wheaton and Harvard (though, let’s skip over Mark Noll). Regardless, there is a wide gap between “Biblical” and “liberal like Harvard.” In the context of talking about Evangelicalism, for example, Calvin College or Westmont College would certainly qualify as liberal in the sense that they have abandoned central tenets of historical Evangelicalism (such as the inerrancy of Scripture). I think there are a number of similar ways in which Wheaton is no longer living up to the Christian faith and historic Evangelicalism. Establishing that would take a bit of a discussion since we probably disagree on a whole host of preliminary issues and after that will probably disagree on how Wheaton actually stands with respect to those issues. To give you an idea of some of the things that concern me:
1) The ideology of the education and sociology depts. (and people who have peacefully coexisted with it) See http://www.wheaton.edu/education/overview/Conceptual_framework0504.pdf and http://openaudiovideo.moody.edu/OSAM/OSAM/ASX/Audio/wma/Radio/Network/Specials/WheatonSocialJusticeReportSR.asx The Ed Dept’s conceptual framework will look jarring to someone who thinks that places like Hillsdale, Grove City, or The King’s College have something to offer.
2) Evangelical Feminism (aka Egalitarianism) being promoted in practice throughout the campus by many and in writing by Douglas Moo and Lynn Cohick.
There are other places I have concerns as well. For a fuller account you can do a google search of http://www.baylyblog.com (http://www.google.com/#sclient=psy&hl=en&site=&source=hp&q=site:www.baylyblog.com+wheaton&aq=f&aqi=&aql=&oq=&pbx=1&fp=dded8f20a6bb9442).
I’m not posting this as simply a drive-by internet argument, but rather to give you an idea of the kinds of concerns that I have as well as some of the evidence for those concerns. As someone who desires my children to have a Christian education that includes a Christian understanding of broad cultural issues this certainly raises a few red flags.
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